Champagne is synonymous with celebration and luxury. There’s plenty of great reasons to drink real Champagne, and there are just as many reasons to choose an alternative, whether for flavor, cost, cultural or environmental reasons.
Champagne buyers exhibit strong brand loyalty, although they may opt for different brands for different occasions, for example family celebrations, work celebrations, parties or romantic moments. Champagne has carefully positioned itself as a premium product, available to all. It’s a tricky ground to hold. The makers of Cristal Champagne have found it too tricky. Their wine was the drink of choice of US rap artists, providing free product placement opportunities in music videos and movies, but that also meant showing in news reports about shootings and overdoses.
Champagne holds a unique marketing position as being instantly recognised as a premium product, with connotations of luxury and fine living summed up in the phrase “champagne lifestyle”. Whilst the actual quality of any bottle of champagne may vary with grape varieties, quality of fruit, blending skill, ageing and storage, the appellation maintains a high level of consumer approval.
Sparkling wines are made throughout France, Europe and the World. They are made in varying styles and to different price points, yet none command the same instant “brand” recognition as Champagne. Some can be made in the same way as Champagne, using the same varieties of fruit, with all the associated expense, but can rarely command the same price.
There’s some great sparking wines out there, and they’re worth getting to know.
France’s Other Sparking Wines
Champagne is not France’s only traditional method sparkling wine. Most regions produce their own fizz at various levels of quality.
The areas of production are spread all over France, so soils and climate vary, but the basic rules of sparkling wine apply, and cooler vineyards either through climate or altitude, and those with densely planted vines on well drained lime/chalk soils produce the best fruit, and varieties with a fairly neutral character produce the best wines. Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc are the major contributors.
These wines tend to be less than champagne in terms of elegance, character and often mousse.
One difficulty these wines face in building a reputation is that following legislation that prevented them from using ‘Champagne Method’ on their labels, which resulted in them all being ‘lumped together’ as Cremant, differentiation is more problematic.
It’s confusing to choose, with wines such as Blanquette de Limoux and Cremant de Limoux and Cremant de Die (made from Clairette) and Clairette de Die Tradition (made from Muscat) sounding similar, but being different.
Steer clear of confusion when buying a gift and opt for glasses instead of Champagne or sparkling wine. This beautiful pair from Waterford is perfect as a wedding or anniversary gift, or for a housewarming. Superior wine calls for superior glasses. There’s nothing quite like the feel of a real Waterford Crystal glass in your hand, and the light reflects through this design so beautifully it’s like you’ve got a little kaleidoscope of wine all to yourself.Treat yourself, treat your partner, or treat someone special, these are the sort of glasses that you’ll hand on through your family.
English Sparkling Wine
The vineyards of Kent are not far from Champagne, just 20-odd miles across the English Channel, and share similar soil types. Whilst global warming may prove disastrous for the Rhone and Rioja it may turn out well for the sparkling wine producers of southern England.
Premium sparkling wine producers have gone to the effort of importing vines from champagne, including rootstock, as well as winemaking techniques. Producers such as Nyetimber have proved that fabulous, champagne style wines can be made in England. Production levels remain extremely low, and high land prices may restrict England’s ability to produce on a major scale.
Whilst English Sparkling wine is divine, it’s not a cheap option. You’ll get wines of similar quality to Champagne at roughly similar prices. Try it to find out why it may soon outstrip Champagne as a premium sparkle.
Cava is a well known wine worldwide and often used as an economical substitute for champagne. Largely produced in Penedes it is not limited to this region with 11 provinces in Spain having producing areas. 98% of Cava comes from Catalonia, the region surrounding Barcelona.
The main Cava production area is centred on Sant Sadurni d’Anoia, with limestone soils, plenty of sunshine and cooling sea breezes with higher altitude vineyards. The primary grapes used are Macabeo (Viura) which has a neutral character, Xarel lo which has an earthy character and Parellada, which offers acidity. Chardonnay is growing in popularity, and there is some debate as to whether making alternate grape varieties legal for Cava production would enhance the product and its reputation.
Cava production is dominated by big brands, with Cordorniu and Freixinet the biggest exporters. They have significant marketing power and are working hard to increase consumption, but like many Spanish wines, they struggle to achieve the prices for equivalent quality French products.
The Spanish economy really needs some help right now, so you can either save a bundle by buying good Cava rather than average Champagne, or boost Spanish employment by buying three bottles of great Cava for the same price as you’d pay for a fairly “blah” Champagne.
Cava is a great way to relive those Barcelona days. If you haven’t been to Barcelona, then now is the time to start planning your trip.
Californian Sparkling Wine
Premium sparkling wines in California come primarily from the Sonoma and Napa valleys, which have the cool climate and sea breezes needed to get the best from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for sparkling wine. Most of the wine produced here goes for domestic consumption, and therefore can use the name ‘Californian Champagne’ on their labels, although premium brands tend not to as it screams ‘fake and inferior’.
In the 1970’s the champagne houses of France recognised the potential of California and established wineries in the area, including Mumm Napa Valley and Domaine Chandon. The two main Cava brands from Spain have followed suit. This has raised the profile of the wines, and added brand recognition. The phrase ‘domestic’ as a prefix for any product in the USA tends not to imply great quality, so, Californian Sparkling Wine has a brighter future than ‘domestic champagne’.
Get to know Napa better, learn about the personalities and brands. It certainly makes the wine more interesting when you know more about where it’s from.
Italian Franciacorta and Prosecco
Italy has more types of sparkling wine than any other country, but has not established a reputation for high quality overall. Franciacorta is its most serious contender, having been raised to DOCG status in 1995. Primarily a Chardonnay wine with some Pinot Blanco and Pinot Noir, produced solely by the same traditional method as Champagne, it has the potential to rival Champagne in quality.
Producers have worked hard to improve the quality of the wine, choosing the best mineral rich soil reducing yields to improve the fruit and removing the ill-suited Pinot Grigio from the blend. The lees aging required for the wine also adds to the overall quality of the wine, requiring 25 months minimum, or 37 for the Riserva denomination.
Sadly Franciacorta is not well known and the producers simply do not have the marketing budgets available to champagne houses.
Prosecco is a much more popular option, and is popular in Europe for drinking by the glass as an afternoon treat or pre-dinner drink with a few nibbles, sitting in a square, watching the world go by.It’s generally served in little glasses of 10cl, so you get about 7 glasses to a bottle.
Prosecco is much cheaper than Champagne, but it still tastes great. It’s a little lighter and a smidge sweeter, which make it perfect for making cocktails with – far better than using good Champagne in drinks which it’s not the star.
Australian Sparkling Wine
Australia produces plenty of sparkling wine, from very basic to premium. Quality white sparkling wine is made from fruit from cooler climate areas such as Victoria and Tasmania. Australia has also popularised Sparkling Shiraz, a fruity red sparkler, with good quality fruit coming from McLaren Vales and Yarra Valley amongst other regions.
Premium production is focused on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, derived from the Champagne approach. The fruit ripens far more reliably and earlier in Australia and so early harvesting is necessary to maintain acidity and keep alcohol under control. Because of the reliability of the Australian harvest, blending is less important a skill here compared to Champagne.
Forty years ago Australian wine was not a major force outside the country, yet now it is a major player in Europe and the USA, the major wine markets. Australian sparkling wine has not developed the same quality reputation, but with the marketing power of the global brands in Australia, it’s possible that the image could change.
The collapse in the world economy is good news for drinkers of Australian wines. Australia’s major exports are commodities – metals, diamonds, coal – and they’re not so popular right now so the Australian dollar and the balance of payments have collapsed. This means cheaper wines, and Australia is exporting some of their top grade stuff much more cheaply than it’s been for years. Fill yer boots mate.
Try some classy, yet affordable Champagne glasses. These flutes are elegant and unfussy, but with a quality feel and weight.
New Zealand Sparkling Wine
Most New Zealand sparkling wine production takes place around Marlborough, a cool location with plenty of sun and free draining soils. Again quality production is centered around Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and reliable vintages reduce the need for blending.
New Zealand has worked hard to ensure that its wines maintain a quality image and price point. Marlborough is recognised as a world class wine production area. Cloudy Bay Pelorus already commands a price equivalent to entry level champagnes in the UK.
Sparkling wines from New Zealand are excellent, but unless you live within a couple of thousand miles of the country, you’ll pay a lot for shipping.
Germany has a fine winemaking tradition and without Germans Champagne would not have the cachet that it enjoys. A quick look at the Grande Marque champagne names gives us a clue as to their German heritage: Bollinger, Heidsieck, Krug, Taittinger. The French employed Germans to help market and sell champagnes heavily in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Some stayed and opened their own houses, yet seemingly failed to bring their sparkling wine making talents home.
Despite Germans drinking more sparkling wine per head than any other Europeans, the quality is generally poor with cheap fruit being bought from throughout Europe and made into sparkling wine by an industrial scale tank method.
Since 1986 Germany has attempted to improve the image of Sekt by ensuring that the term Deutscher Sekt is reserved for wines made from German grapes. This has not, however, guaranteed quality as much of the fruit is not grown specifically for sparkling wine production. However, over the last decade artisan winemakers have been producing an increasing but still small amount of high quality estate bottled Riesling Sekt which is helping to restore serious interest in Sekt.
If you’ve ever wanted to make one of those sparkling wine waterfalls, with all the glasses piled up and the “Champagne” flowing down to fill them all, then Sekt gives you the opportunity to do that cheaply. Use this bumper pack of plastic Marie Antoinette glasses (said to be modeled on the shape of her breasts) to complete the scene. It’s fun, it’s frivolous. but it’s a waste of good Champagne – a perfect time for a cheap alternative.